The Fear Is Real

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Businesses small, medium and large still have one thing in common: they’re scared of Social Media.

That’s not entirely true. They’re not scared of Social Media, they’re scared of trying to cater, answer and amend every little customer service issue in public. They’re scared of being held hostage by someone who has a cousin who has a significant following on Twitter. They scared that someone who is Blogging about their company (without any real credibility and knowledge of the company) is tarnishing their image and perpetuating myths or misconceptions.

For the most part, too many companies are missing the point.

Access to information has been disintermediated. Prior to Social Media, if you had a gripe with a company, it was a major effort to get your local news folks interested in the story. If they became interested, the brand in question would not interface with the individual, but (more likely than not), they would use the media channel to mediate the result. Those channels still exist, but they’re not as powerful in a world where anyone can have an issue and then publish it (in text, images, audio and video) instantly and for free to the world to see. On top of that, there was/is a social contract between the media and brands. There is, to some extent, rules of engagement. Individuals, customers, consumers, don’t know that language. They don’t speak it and they’re not interested in it.

If you don’t have a community to back you up, you’ll always look defensive.

The flaw in this thinking is not that it’s hard to respond and make customers happy (it always is and always will be challenging to make everybody happy, all of the time). The flaw in this thinking happens because brands are being reactive without a community to help them spread an idea. Brands hop into Social Media with very little equity in the audience. They fail to realize that you don’t get a community when you need it, you develop and nurture a community slowly over time, so that when you need something (anything) they are there for. If you’re not spending your time in Social Media developing and nurturing that, you will always be in a reactive mode.

Pushing out into the real world.

The paradigm shift in culture within the brand and organization is where the root of success will happen. There has to be an appetite to:

  • Share information in public.
  • Open up.
  • Speak in a human voice.
  • Respond to an issue even if no one is asking about it in the Social Media channels.
  • Use transparency when applicable and possible (sorry to say, that when it comes to companies, they can’t always to do this).
  • Adhere to the regulations of their industry while explaining to consumers why it is the way it is – in their language.
  • Ensure that everyone within the organization understand what the company is doing and trying to accomplish with Social Media.
  • Share the positive stuff too (it’s not – and should never be – the place to only respond to issues).

But, more importantly…

Understand that the channels and platforms are agnostic. They are as accessible to the brand as they are to an individual. If a company feels slighted by the media, why not leverage Social Media to share and tell your side of the story? Why not let your followers on Twitter know that you don’t agree with how a customer is reacting and explain your side? Why not become a media and/or publisher of content (much like your consumers are doing)? All of the concepts listed here mean nothing when the end-game is not about becoming more credible and relevant to your consumer.

All ships rise.

When brands use the channels like their consumers use the channels, something bigger than a halo effect takes place. Individuals begin to see, read and hear how the company truly thinks. Why they think this way and how to get resolution. Brands fear Social Media because they have never really been publishers of content. They have never really been able to use the people within the organization – those with authentic voices – to really speak about the brand. And while this fear is very real and still alive in most organizations, there are enough examples of brands who have used these platforms as an exchange of ideas and issues and an evolution – to the point where it is a healthy eco-system of self-regulation.

It’s too bad that this fear is real (but it is). What’s your take? How can we make brands less afraid?


  1. To me, using social media at the corporate level is simply an extension of public relations. It makes me think of crisis communication strategies: control your message by being the first to output it. I think if this is the approach used, everything else – interactivity, community of followers, growth/ROI – will come naturally. People have a thirst for knowledge, and if they know that they can get accurate information quickly from the primary source, why would the go elsewhere?

  2. I believe it will be hand holding, cultivating and leading the way by being the example that will show these companies. This includes advocates, evangelists and enthusiasts infiltrating, encouraging, and even demanding social media integration. This means (most likely) our ground level employees will become ‘allies on the inside’ encouraging bottom up adoption since they are comfortable believers.
    So in short, we capture and enlighten the masses, and the masses become insiders who sell it up the latter.

  3. Well said! I completely agree. I think people fear social media because it seems like a new concept, but really it is just a new way of doing things that companies have been doing for decades. And it’s a way to do it better – faster, more efficiently and with broader reach.

  4. I think brands are afraid of the unknown. Across more traditional channels, they know what the approximate performance is going to be based on their levels of spend. They know their metrics. They know their challenges. They know their options. They know what to expect.
    In social, not only don’t they have real relevant experience, not only are they overwhelmed by opportunity, pitches and possibility, but they are challenged with finding a compelling real case study that is a true parallel for their business challenge. Funding doesn’t fall from the sky, which would require that funding for social come from somewhere else. For many that “somewhere else” may not be the best solution, it may be a declining media, but they know what they’re getting.

  5. Ha! Really Mitch!? That was my subject for the next Longboard conference. I’m glad the invite wasn’t sent yet. I guess I’ll need to find a twist and disagree with you :P.

  6. Thinking about Social Media as an extension of PR and corporate communications seems like we’re only looking at very small (albeit important) part of a much larger opportunity. I think corporations struggle with Social Media so much because they see it only as a communication channel.

  7. It’s also a language and connectivity issue. The way you “speak” in Social Media is dramatically different from the standard corporate pap we hear. It’s also a different world when your message is broadcasted through one channel to many people, to a platform where everyone one of those “many people” has their own publishing platform and media outlet.

  8. It’s also a question of time. It won’t happen in the short term… in one quarter… it can and should take a much longer time. Much in the same way it takes time to build real friendships and relationships… the ones that count and matter.

  9. Agreed. Social Media is not one thing. It’s many different things and it can do many different things. It’s more about figuring out the business objectives and then looking to the channel to see how/where it can add significant and relevant value.

  10. Nice Mitch! I recently had a discussion with a B2C company that told me they didn’t want to open their facebook up to comments because they didn’t want complaints to come through this channel. I asked if they really felt after 30plus years in business that there were people ready to really chew them out on facebook?
    Why not look at it as an amazing opportunity to open a discussion with them about their issues. I would rather them take out their problems on the platform (that we could monitor) and have an opportunity to correct the issue, than have the person bad-mouth it all over town.
    My experience has been that people really don’t use these channels to chat about really bad problems. If they have a real issue they usually want to talk to someone about it. You usually get the “my item arrived cracked” or “shipping took a little long”, which are really small issues you can correct on FB and look good doing it.

  11. The 15th of December. JM will send the invites as soon as I get my topic together:). Trying to decide between SM impact on the humanization of brands (impacts on corporation, etc) and Going full circle with virtual (finally) meeting local. Sexier title of course.

  12. It reminds me of people falling from a horse and getting back on it immediately to overcome fear. I believe the only way for a brand to be less afraid of social media is to just jump on it. Not in a meaningless way, of course, but definitely *just taking actions* towards it rather than just being afraid.

  13. “If you don’t have a community to back you up, you’ll always look defensive”
    Absolutely spot on, Mitch. Many people I know go “oh we have a list of bloggers/influencers that we can reach out to when we need to” but I don’t think that works. You reach out to them first and build goodwill so that they become familiar with where the organisation comes from and maybe will begin to see them as humanised corporations, and then when you need to tap into the community, you know you have them there.

  14. I love Liz Strauss’ term – you can be transparent but you don’t need to be naked. Some things you are working on are not ready for public consumption. And as you point out in presentations, the worst thing you can do is hand your brand over to the intern to navigate the angry mob.
    I remember getting “complaint letters” and I would sigh because I had to “write a letter” in response. It was a pain in the backside. Then I realized the ominous power of the telephone. I would turn venom into an apology. People were blown away that I actually took the time to respond.
    Most sent the letter with absolutely no expectation of getting any response. When they got the call, they were absolutely shocked. Then along came email and although the velocity increased, the expectation of any response did not increase.
    We want good customer service but rarely expect it. Every one of us resides on both sides of the counter. We are all suppliers and customers but often forget that depending on what role we are playing at the time.
    In a world where – in many cases – differentiation is nearly impossible, do what the other guy won’t do and respond. Hiding is not a strategy. Maple Leaf and Jet Blue got it. Many companies that shall remain nameless do not.
    Fear is very real and should not be discounted. In fact, it should be highlighted so you can face it head on. Throwing your hands in the area because the sheer volume of correspondence is overwhelming will only cause you more fear.
    We are experiencing a monumental shift in how we communicate and may I be so brave as to suggest that may require you to look at re-aligning job descriptions because the Jeanie crushed the bottle and left the room.

  15. Mitch,
    I’d be interested in reading/listening to those brands that have “embraced” social media. There will always be fear. Whether its fear of heights or fear of winter or other things.
    When it comes to a business having fear of social media the way to solve it is the same for most things. They need someone on the inside to show that the fear may be real but the upside can be great. Businesses are made up of people. So when we say that companies fear social media, its really the people inside who are afraid.

  16. Unfortunately, many brands are corrupt and can’t come out of hiding. SM could however evolve a standard to marginalize corruption.

  17. Dear MJ, this post is very well written and brings to the forefront one of the major obstacles in social media uptake by corporations FEAR of transparency , however I believe that rationality and logic are on SMs side. At this juncture i would like to also bring to your notice another obstacle which i think also plays its part and thats the novelty of SM, people at times dont understand it , and even when they do feel the need for it they have no clue as to how to go about it, i think people also fear the resource intensiveness of the SM channel, not just the sentiment of the conversations that they would drive but also the volume of conversations and their ability to manage these conversations. So i think its like we need to be on social media , but how do we do it and what would be required of us , and will it just go crazy, and on top of that the ROI questions are always being raised on this investment.

  18. Agreed, reminds me of the advice an IR veteran gave me a long time ago, “investors are moved by the consistency of your communications more than the specifics of any one earnings report or press release. Credibility comes from being out there talking to them, good times or bad”. This is closely linked to authenticity, not something you can haul out only when you have a crisis.

  19. Knowing that there are complaints says it all. Thats like saying, “we know we suck, but we don’t want to hear it!” yes, I’m being brutal for a reason. Social Media is not going to save a problematic brand. Nor will opening up on Facebook. It’s going to take a lot more and it starts with innovation.

  20. They’re there to respond and react. To both the good and the bad. It frustrates me that whenever we talk about Social Media, it’s about doing so to respond to the negativity versus doing so because they simply can and should.

  21. Part of this comes from also understanding that not all customer service issues are the same. All too often, companies try to script their response when, in reality, they should probably think more like: not two customer service issues are the same.
    Social Media freaks them out because they can’t create a response formula around it. This makes it time consuming… And scary.

  22. Agreed, but there needs to be some kind of “movement” from within the organization to truly make a run at this. Platitudes won’t work and responding to the odd person on Twitter is not the answer either. It takes a lot more. And, unfortunately, the majority of brands are truly and deeply scared.

  23. I’m not as dire as that. I don’t think brands and companies are corrupt. I do think that many don’t understand this new world where anyone and everyone has a megaphone. It just creeps them out.

  24. It’s also that same novelty that keeps many of the bigger brands away from it. They see it as a fad. It’s as if Twitter is in the same league as Lady Gaga. The truth is, Twitter might be a fad, but the greater construct of what Social Media is and how it will evolve is not a fad, but an established media platform – one that is much more malleable and dynamic than any media channel that has come before it.

  25. Beyond that, Social Media allows brands to that. If you think about it, that’s where the challenge lies, because brands are not used to being that transparent with anyone (and this includes their employees). For some it comes more naturally, but for the majority, they’re just not ready or willing – in a meaningful way.

  26. Great post! I’ll bet the brand managers at the Gap wish they’d read this, oh, about a year ago. They might have avoided their panic and stumble when social media dissed their recent brand refresh. It must be awful to be blindsided by what amounts to an attack from those you are trying to woo.

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